2004: Parity’s Potent Punch
These are changing times in NCAA Division I men’s golf. What once was a broad chasm between the upper and middle classes, the haves and the have-nots, has narrowed to an ultra-thin line. California, a program temporarily demoted to a club sport in 1979 – back when Houston, Wake Forest and Oklahoma State seemingly used to pass the NCAA trophy back and forth each year – captured the national title in June.
The Bears weren’t the only ones diving head-first into a growing pool of parity. They had company.
Kentucky, once a laughingstock in the SEC, won the Central Regional and was second at the NCAAs through 54 holes, eventually settling for eighth.
Penn State was second at the East Regional and qualified for the NCAA Championship for only the second time, finishing 15th.
Rhode Island became the first team from New England to advance to the NCAA finals since regional play began 15 years ago, making it with an eighth-place finish at the East Regional.
Georgia State and Vanderbilt advanced to the NCAA finals for only the second time in the history of their respective golf programs, with Georgia State tying for 11th.
Though last season shined the spotlight upon this new world order in college golf, it is something that has been in the making for quite some time – the seeds being sown with the inception of postseason regional championships back in 1989. The move to regionals allowed more teams the opportunity to play their way into the national finals, as opposed to the previous “good ol’ boy” process of a committee selecting 30 teams – often times making those selections based on past reputations, not present accomplishment.
“I think you’re seeing more and more of it (parity) each year,” said Buddy Alexander, the veteran coach at Florida who has guided the Gators to a pair of NCAA titles in the past dozen years. “I think it’s good for the game and good for college golf. You still see many of the so-called ‘elite’ programs ranked in the top 10, but you’re also seeing a lot of up-and-coming programs that are really striving and doing what they have to do to get better and compete at a high level.”
Among the teams that failed to qualify for the 2004 NCAA finals – 10 qualified from each of three regionals – nine were ranked in the top 30 of the Golfweek⁄Sagarin College Rankings. Teams such as No. 12 Minnesota (NCAA champions in 2002), No. 19 Augusta State and No. 21 Wake Forest were among the teams that didn’t make it. On the other hand, Penn State was ranked 72nd and Rhode Island 117th going into the NCAA postseason.
“There are a lot of programs out there now that are getting after it and really trying to be competitive, ones that might not be household names,” said Brian Craig, Kentucky’s fourth-year coach and a former assistant under Alexander. “What’s happened over the last 10-15 years, it’s been harder for the programs like Florida and Oklahoma State to get all the good players. They can get a lot of them, but they can’t get them all. And that has allowed some of these other programs to get some of them and develop some young players. That has produced an awfully competitive situation in Division I golf.”
It didn’t take long for coaches to realize that the landscape for the national championship would change when regional play entered the picture.
From the inaugural regional events in 1989 – when teams such as Wake Forest (ranked third nationally at the time), Ohio State and Stanford failed to qualify, and Southwestern Louisiana, Miami (Ohio) and Nevada-Reno did – there have been upsets and Cinderella stories almost annually.
All one has to do to see the ripple effect of parity is look at the NCAA Championship.
In a 32-year span from 1956 to 1987, there were only eight different winners of the NCAA title (Houston won 16 times), and only seven different runners-up – meaning, of the 64 teams finishing first or second, only 15 programs were represented.
Since then, only three teams – Arizona State (1990 and ’96), Oklahoma State (1991, ’95 and 2000) and Florida (1993 and 2001) – have collected more than one national championship. In the same stretch, 10 teams captured their first NCAA crown. And the past nine seasons have produced nine different champions.
“I think it’s wonderful, and just goes to show you the growth in our game,” said Larry Penley, who guided Clemson to its first NCAA title in 2003. “It’s positive for all schools. There are so many of the so-called ‘middle-tier’ programs that are making an impact, and I think that’s great.
I think it shows our sport to be both healthy and growing.”
Factors other than the implementation of regionals also have had an effect in leveling the playing field.
The main ingredient is a deeper pool of players. There are so many more talented young golfers, not only in the United States, but worldwide. And, with the limited number of scholarships a program can offer – 41⁄2 for men’s Division I schools – the door has opened for more programs to land their share of good players.
“The scholarship limit of 41⁄2 makes it hard to have quality depth,” said Mike Holder, who in his 30 years at the Oklahoma State helm has won eight NCAA titles. “Virtually every program has a full-time coach and, in most cases, a full-time assistant. These coaches all work hard at recruiting and developing players, and they’re looking all around the world to find these players. The proliferation of facility upgrades and increased spending for recruiting, team travel, video equipment and all the intangibles necessary for improvement as a player are all factors.”
Before 1970, there were no scholarship limitations, allowing a powerhouse such as Houston to win the bulk of its 16 NCAA titles, the last coming in 1985. It’s even been said that Dave Williams, the late legendary Cougars coach, would recruit some top players not because he thought they might crack his lineup, but because he didn’t want them playing for someone else.
The NCAA set its scholarship limit at eight in the early 1970s, later knocked it down to five in the late ’70s, and in the mid-1980s cut it to the current number.
“In the old days, the top programs might have five really good players,” said Auburn coach Mike Griffin. “Other teams might have one really good player and would have to fill in the other four spots. Now you’re seeing where teams have three top players and only have to fill in two spots.”
Just as there are more players, there are also many more young and energetic coaches, many of whom have come through the assistant coaching ranks, such as Craig. They know what it takes to build a program, they’re enthusiastic, they push their administrations for support and they’re not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the big boys in the recruiting game.
“At one time you might see a handful of coaches at the U.S. Junior,” said Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler, a former assistant at UNLV and Oklahoma State, “and I remember one year when I was still at UNLV, Coach Holder and I were the only two coaches there during match play. This year we counted over 70 coaches (at the U.S. Junior). I think that shows not only how competitive recruiting is getting, but how seriously these coaches are about their programs.”
Also fitting into this big picture is the support programs are getting from their schools.
“We’ve obviously increased the budget, committed the funds for an assistant coach, and we’ve tried to do some things in travel that allow us to get around a little better,” said Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart.
“We’ve got some boosters who have stepped forward and are helping our program, where we didn’t have as much of that in the past. All the credit goes to Brian Craig. He has done a phenomenal job and we want to do whatever we can to support him and his program.”
Adds Heppler, “What you’re seeing is more and more ADs (athletics directors) saying this (golf) is a good deal and is good for their programs and for their boosters. They’re seeing these young golfers and realizing that they represent their schools with the utmost integrity and project a positive image to everyone around them.”
All these ingredients stirred into a pot have simmered into an exquisite meal called parity. And right now it’s one of the main dishes on the menu of men’s Division I college golf.